Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Mangaphobia 05: Fullmetal Alchemist

A thank you, first, to everyone who's given me recommendations for Mangaphobia so far. This episode is the one where I've truly stepped outside my comfort zone - watching something I knew absolutely nothing about beforehand - and I couldn't possibly be writing it without you. Of everything suggested to me, this show has been by far the most common and popular, so it seems the logical place to dive in. Wish me luck!

There is a moment in Akira (the seminal anime movie of, well, ever) where a girl almost gets raped. I actually really like Akira - it's the most consistent anime, in terms of tone, quality, message, and every other respect, that I've seen - and I respect it greatly for playing that scene as traumatic rather than titillating (ahem). But then, after the heroes save her, one of them laughs and, for a moment, he bounces on the spot with horrible jerky animation and these little white mushrooms of air float out of his mouth. That moment is so out of place - so at odds with everything else in the film and especially that scene - that it fundamentally broke Akira for me. When I think of that film, bouncy mushroom guy is the first thing that comes to mind, and it takes a few seconds to remember all the great parts instead.

I'm sure there's a name for this - the horrible thing in anime and manga where they slap giant floating "vein" lines over someone's head, or little wiggly rivers coming out of their eyes - but I don't know what that name is. Lets go with "sweatdropping", in honour of the most common offender.
This crap doesn't even work in absurd comedy like Azumanga Daioh, so when it appears in something as serious and adult as Akira it actually makes my teeth hurt. I don't understand why anyone does this - it's not funny and it destroys the tone and drama of whatever else is going on. Just draw some actual human emotions on their faces, damnit!

Enter Fullmetal Alchemist.
This is a show absolutely littered with sweatdropping of the most gratuitous and inappropriate kind. In just the first ten minutes we go from scenes of an incredibly horrific childhood accident to suddenly having those same children turn into ridiculous chibis. Characters die in legitimately upsetting ways, and then others will do the silly waterfall-tears thing about it. In the middle of dramatic fights and vital plot revelations, people's faces will suddenly turn into emoticons. I praised Cowboy Bebop for having a varied tone that shifts gently between drama and comedy, but the tone here swerves so often and so violently that it almost gave me a hilarious anime nosebleed.

Yet, counter to all common sense and previous experience, Fullmetal Alchemist works.

This confused me for ages, but I think I've finally figured out how it works and why. The problem with the sweatdropping in Akira, and in pretty much everything else, is that it's jarringly at odds with the tone (and art-style) of the rest of the film. There's a consistent look and feel to everything that gets suddenly shattered by something totally different. But the reason it feels so inconsistent is not purely because the sweatdropping happens - it's because it only happens once. In the entire film, the breath-mushrooms are the only time we see anything like this, so it sticks out like a sore thumb.
In Fullmetal Alchemist, where it's happening all the time, these sudden, violent gear-changes don't clash with the tone because they sort of are the tone. The show is consistent in its inconsistency, if that makes any kind of sense.

Don't get me wrong - the sweatdropping is still by far the worst thing about the show. For the first few episodes the tonal dissonance is almost too much to cope with - alternately dark as hell and childishly stupid - and even after you settle into it there are still many moments that don't work. The most serious character in the show suddenly announces, in a scene with much sweatdropping and even a nosebleed, that his ultimate plan is to force all women to wear tiny skirts - and, because we'd never even seen him smile before, I honestly couldn't tell if he was joking or not.
On the whole, though, the sweatdropping works. It's not funny (because it's never funny) and I personally don't think it adds anything - but it doesn't cause any problems either, just becoming a (very weird) part of the show's texture.

And what a show it is! Fullmetal Alchemist is the tale of the Elric brothers - two teenage alchemists who get embroiled in war, politics and ungodly supernatural horror.
Alchemy in the show is magic treated as a science, or possibly vice versa; the manipulation of matter, at the chemical level, using arcane circles. With it, alchemists can do pretty much anything - except, as the Elrics gruesomely discover, the manipulation of human beings. The brothers' forbidden meddling leaves Edward, the eldest, missing two limbs and Alphonse, the youngest, a bodiless soul fused to an empty suit of armour.

Already, these are two of the most interesting characters I've ever seen in an anime. As what is essentially a robot, Al is invincible, immortal and impossibly strong; yet, as the younger brother, he's the more naive and emotionally vulnerable. Likewise, as the eldest, Ed is incredibly protective of his brother and feels responsible for him, despite Al being three times his size and made of metal. They're inseparable and entirely devoted to one-another, and the back-to-front sibling dynamic between them is wonderful.

Together, the Elrics set out to find the one source of alchemical energy great enough to restore their bodies: the fabled Philosopher's Stone (or "Sorcerer’s Stone" to American Harry Potter fans). Also hunting the stone are a sinister group of superhuman creatures, the scarred assassin of a persecuted religion, the entire fascist military state, and more besides.
Each of these groups comes with their own characters and their own plots, and they're all engaging and deep. As the separate stories intertwine with the brothers' the show keeps us guessing - allies become villains and villains become allies and we, like the Elrics, are never sure what's true or who to trust.

While all these colliding stories do sometimes get quite convoluted, they thankfully never get confusing. When there are things we don't understand it's only because the characters don't understand them either, never because they're explained badly or obtusely withheld from us. After suffering through Evangelion for the last couple of months this direct approach is, frankly, quite a relief.

In fact, thinking about it, Fullmetal Alchemist is almost the anti-Evangelion in a lot of ways. There's a lot of thematic overlap between the two - they both grapple with the same ideas - but where Eva loudly draws attention to its themes and then does nothing with then, Alchemist lets them simmer under the surface quietly making a specific point. Both shows are fundamentally about what it means to be human and the nature of the soul - yet only one of them bothers to explore what a soul actually is and whether or not it matters.
Both shows also deal with dead mothers, absent fathers, child soldiers, loss, obsession, ambition, sins of the past, death, resurrection, science, religion; and, in every single case, Fullmetal Alchemist is less overt about these ideas, yet does much more with them in a fraction of the time.

The strongest example of this is that, in just two episodes, it explores existentialism better than Evangelion's entire series of Shinji talking to himself. During a couple of mid-series episodes, Al panics that he has no way of knowing if he is truly Alphonse Elric or just a construct with false memories. It's a pretty touching little story thread that brings the brothers closer together; and when it unexpectedly came up again during the finale, with much higher stakes, it actually made me burst into tears.

It admittedly isn't that hard to make me cry, but Fullmetal Alchemist is the first Japanese cartoon that's ever managed it. That says an awful lot about how powerful and involving this series is.

Though it's telling an epic story with a lot of moving parts, the emphasis is always squarely on character. Yet, crucially, it maintains that single-minded focus without ever becoming melodramatic. Everything is intimate and personal, and we can't help but care.
When it's dealing with massive socio-political problems (and it often is) we see them through the eyes of the Elrics - and because we care about them, we care about what they care about. New characters are handled the same way: we meet them through the brothers and we feel however they feel. It's economical and clever and the show uses it to shocking emotional effect.
The picture to the right is from only the seventh episode, and it will instantly break the heart of anyone who has seen the series. It's a plotline that was only introduced in the previous episode, and involves a character who's, frankly, kind of annoying. Yet it's completely devastating - it tears your heart out of your chest and squeezes out every drop of emotion. And it's far from the last time this happens. Hell, I'm not even sure it's the first.

The show keeps up this same level of pathos right 'til the end, then somehow goes one further. The finale is poignant and bittersweet and amazing. It's the perfect ending for this show, too, because it's purely about Ed and Al, and their love for each other. I'm fairly certain it will stick with me forever; it did make me cry, after all. You never forget your first.

I’m kind of in awe of this series. I intended to only review the first half of the fifty-episodes and come back to it later, but it's so compelling that I couldn't stop until it was over. Even now I'm struggling to understand how it can be so engaging. It has so many problems that it really shouldn't work!
The plot is needlessly complex, for one thing, and probably has too many characters (though it uses them well). Someone trips and grabs a boob, for another. But, mainly, the tone is just all over the damn place. It's either brutally dark or aiming for (and usually missing) really immature jokes. There's one character who only exists to comically lose his shirt and sparkle like a vampire, yet that same character once participated in genocide. There is powerful, moving imagery, and there is sweatdropping. It's very clever, with deep themes and strong ideas, but at the same time it's so stupid.

Yet, somehow, Fullmetal Alchemist takes all these incompatible elements and combines them into something greater. It turns these base metals into gold, if you will. It's alchemy - and it's driven by two fantastic central characters and the unbreakable bond between them.

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